Strategy, Tactics And Objectives – In The Words Of The Generals, You Can’t Bake A Cake Without Breaking A Few Eggs

I have always enjoyed reading history, and particularly military history, both as a hobby and as a way of learning from the past in order to better understand the currents and tides of political and social life that ‘batter one’ during one’s three score and ten years on earth, no matter how much one tries to avoid them. Compared to folk who lived in the first half of the twentieth century, I perceive that we have lived our contemporary lives in an environment that is relatively peaceful from the context that there has been no world-war or major conflict for the last 70 or 80 years, though the world-wide political fluxes recently, particularly in the USA and Europe / UK, are worrying, as is the rising nationalism, divisive ‘single choice’ politics, intolerance of minorities, and increasing number of refugees searching for better lives, all eerily reminiscent of what occurred in the decade before the American Civil War and both World Wars. I recently read (or actually re-read – a particularly odd trait of mine is that I often read books a dozen or more times if I find something in them important or compelling from a learning perspective) a book on the Western Allies European military strategy in the second World War, and of the disagreements that occurred between the United States General (and later President) Dwight Eisenhower and British General Bernard Montgomery over strategy and tactics used during the campaign, and how this conflict damaged relations between the military leaders of the two countries almost irreparably. I also re-read two autobiographies of soldiers involved in the war, the first by Major Dick Winters, who was in charge of a Company (Easy Company) of soldiers in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st USA Airborne Division, and the second an (apparently) autobiographical book written by Guy Sajer (if that was indeed his name), a soldier in the German Werhmacht, about his personal experiences first as a lorry driver, then as a soldier on the Eastern front in the GrossDeutschland Division, and was struck by how different both the two books were in content compared to the one on higher European military strategy, and also how different the experiences were between Generals and foot soldiers, even though they were all involved in the same conflict. All this got me thinking of objectives, strategy and tactics, and how they are set, and how they impact on the folk that have to carry them out.

Both strategy and tactics are developed in order to achieve a particular objective (also known as a goal). An objective is defined as a desired result that a person or system envisions, plans, and commits to achieve. The leaders of most organizations, whether they are military, political, academic or social set out a number of objectives they would like to achieve, for the greater good of the organization they lead (though it is never acknowledged, of course, that they – the leaders – will get credit or glory for achieving the objective, and that this is often an ‘underlying’ objective in itself). In order to achieve an objective, a leader, or group of leaders, set a particular strategy in order to do so. There are a number of different definitions of strategy, including it being a ‘high level’ plan to achieve an objective under conditions of uncertainty, or making decisions about how to best use resources available in the presence of often conflicting options, requirements and challenges in order to achieve a particular objective. The concept underpinning strategic planning is to set a plan / course of action that is believed that will be best suited to achieve the objective, and stick to that plan until the objective is achieved. If conditions change in a way that makes sticking to the strategy difficult, then tactics are used to compensate and adjust to the conditions while ‘maintaining’ the overall strategic plan. Tactics as a concept are often confused with strategy – but are in effect the means and methods of how a strategy is implemented, adhered to, and maintained, and can be altered in order to maintain the chosen strategy.

What is strategy and what are tactics becomes challenging when there are different ‘levels’ of command in an organization, with lower levels having more specific objectives which are individually required in order to achieve the over-arching objective, but which require the creation of specific ‘lower-level’ strategy, in order to reach the specific objective being set, even if the objective is a component of a higher level strategic plan. From the viewpoint of the planners that create the high-level / general objective strategy, the lower level plans / specific objectives would be tactics. From the viewpoint of the planners that set the lower-level strategy needed to complete a specific component of the general strategy, their ‘lower level’ plans would be (to them) strategy rather than tactics, with tactics being set at even lower levels in their specific area of command / management, which in turn could set up a further ‘debate’ about what is strategy and what is tactics at these even ‘lower’ level of command. Even the poor foot soldier, who is a ‘doer’ rather than a ‘planner’ of any strategic plan or tactical action enacted as part of any higher level of command, would have their own objectives beyond those of the ‘greater plan’, most likely that of staying alive, and would have his or her own strategic plan to both fulfil the orders given to them, but stay alive, and tactics of how to do so. So in any organization, there are multiple levels of planning and objective setting, and what is strategy and what is tactics often becomes confused (and often commanders at lower level of command find orders given to them inexplicable, as they don’t have awareness of how their particular orders fit into the ‘greater strategic plan’), and this requires constant management by those at each level of command.

It is perhaps not being clear about what the specific objectives behind the creation of a particular strategy are which causes most command conflict, and is what happened in the later stages of the second World War as one of the main causes of the deterioration of the relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery. The objective of the Allies in Western Europe was relatively simple – enter Europe and defeat Germany (though of course the war was mostly won and lost on the Eastern front due to Russian sacrifice and German strategic confusion) – but it was the strategy of how this was to happen which led to the inter-ally conflict, of which so much has been written. Eisenhower was the supreme Allied Commander, and responsible for all the Allied troops in Western Europe, and for setting the highest level of strategic planning. He decided on a ‘broad front’ strategy, where different Army Groups advanced eastwards across Europe after the breakout from Normandy, in a line from the northern coast of Europe to the southern coastline of Mediterranean Europe. Montgomery was originally the commander of all Allied ground troops in Europe, then after the Normandy breakout became commander of the 21st Army group, which was predominantly made up of British and Commonwealth troops (but also containing a large contingent of American troops), and he favoured a single, ‘sharp’ method of attacking one specific region of the front (of course choosing an area for attack in his own region of command). Montgomery’s doctrine was that which most strategic manuals would favour, and Eisenhower was sharply criticized by military leaders both during and after the war for going against the accepted strategic ‘thinking’ of that time. But Eisenhower of course had not just military objectives to think about, and had also political requirements too, and had to maintain harmony between not just American and British troops and nations, but also a number of Commonwealth countries troops and national requirements. If he had chosen one specific ‘single thrust’ strategy, as Montgomery demanded, he would have had to choose either a British dominated or American dominated attack, led by either a specific British or American commander, and neither country would have ‘tolerated’ such ‘favouritism’ on his part, and this issue was surely a large factor when he decided on a ‘broad front’ strategy. There was clearly military strategic thinking on his part too – ‘single thrust’ strategies can be rapidly ‘beaten back’ / ‘pinched off’ if performed against a still-strong military opposition, as was the case when Montgomery chose to attack on a very narrow line to Arnhem, and this was more than a ‘bridge too far’ – the German troops simply shut off the ‘corridor’ of advance behind the lead troops and the Allies were forced to withdraw in what was a tactical defeat for them. Montgomery criticized Eisenhower’s ‘broad front’ as leading to, or allowing, the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ to occur, when the German armies in late 1944 counter-attacked through the Belgium Ardennes region towards Antwerp, and caused a ‘reverse bulge’ in the Allied ‘broad front’ line, but in effect the rapidity with which the Allies closed down and defeated this last German ‘counter-thrust’ paradoxically provided evidence against the benefits of Montgomery’s ‘single thrust’ strategy, even though he used the German Ardennes offensive to condemn Eisenhower’s ‘broad front’ strategy. Perhaps Eisenhower should have been more clear about the political nature of his objectives and the political requirements of his planning, but then he would have been criticized for allowing political factors to ‘cloud’ what should have been purely military decisions (at least by his critics), so like many leaders setting ‘high level’ strategy, he was ‘doomed’ to be criticized whatever his strategic planning was, even if the ‘proof was in the pudding’ – his chosen strategy did win the war, and did so in less than a year after it was initiated, after the Allies had been at war for more than five years before the invasion of Western Europe was planned and initiated.

Whatever the ‘high level’ strategic decision made by the Generals, the situation ‘on the ground’ for Company leaders and foot soldiers who had to enact these strategies was very different, as was well described in the books by Dick Winters (the book became a highly praised TV series – Band of Brothers) and Guy Sajer. Most of the individual company level actions in which Easy company participated in bordered on the shambolic – from the first parachute drop into enemy held France where most of the troops were scattered so widely that they fought mainly skirmishes in small units, to operations supporting Montgomery’s ‘thrust’ to Arnhem which were a tactical failure and resulted in them withdrawing in defeat, to the battle of Bastogne which was a key component of the battle of the ‘Bulge’, where they just avoided defeat and sustained heavy casualties, and only just managed to ‘hold on’ until reinforcements arrived. A large number of their operations described were therefore not tactically successful, yet played their part in a grand strategy which lead to ultimate success. The impact of the ‘grand strategy’ on individual soldiers was horrifyingly (but beautifully from a writing perspective) described and a must read for any prospective military history ‘buffs’ in Guy Sajer’s autobiography – most of his time was spend marching in bitter cold or thick mud from one area of the Eastern front to another as his Division was required to stem yet another Russian breakthrough, or trying to find food with no formal rations being brought up to them as the Werhmacht operational management collapsed in the last phases of the war, or watching his friends being killed one by one in horrific ways as the Russian army grew more successful and more aggressive in their desire for both revenge and military success. There was no obvious pattern or strategy to what they were doing at the foot soldier level, there were no military objectives that could be made sense of at the individual level he described, rather there was only the ‘brute will to survive’, and to kill or be killed, and only near the end, did he (and his company level leaders) realize that they were actually losing the war, and their defeat would mean the annihilation of Germany and everything they were fighting for ‘back home’. Yet is was surely the individual actions of soldiers in their thousands and millions that endured and died for either side, that in a gestalt way lead to the strategic success (or failure) planned for by their leaders and generals, even if at their individual level they could make little sense of the benefit of their sacrifice in the context of the broader tactical and strategic requirements, in the times when they could reflect on this, though surely most of their own thoughts were on surviving anther terrible day, or another terrible battle, rather than on its ‘meaning’ or relevance.

One of the quotes that I have read in military history texts that has caused me to reflect most about war and strategy as an ‘amateur’ military history enthusiast is attributed to British World War Two Air Marshal Peter Portal, who when discussing some what he believed to be defective strategic planning with his colleague and army equal Field Marshal Alan Brooke, apparently suggested that ‘one cannot make a cake without breaking some eggs’. What he was saying, if I understood it, and the comment indeed can be attributed to him, was that in order for a military strategy to be successful, some (actually most of the time probably many) individual solders have to be sacrificed and die for the ‘greater good’ which would be a successfully achieved objective. From a strategic point of view he was surely correct, and often Generals who don’t take risks and worry too much about their soldiers safety can paradoxically often cause more harm than good by developing an overly cautious strategy which has an increased risk of failure and therefore an increased risk of more soldiers dying. But from a human point of view the comment is surely chilling, as each soldier’s individual death, often in brutal conditions, is horrific both to those that it happens to and those relatives, friends and colleagues that survive them. Often, or perhaps most of the time, individual soldiers die without any real understanding of the strategic purpose behind their death, and with a wish just to be with their loved ones again, and to be far from the environment and actions which cause their death. The folk at senior leadership levels setting grand strategy require a high degree of moral courage to ‘see it through’ to the end, knowing that their strategy will surely lead to a number of individual deaths. The folk who enact the grand strategy ‘in the trenches’ need a high degree of physical courage to perform the required actions to do so in conditions of grave danger, that as a small part of the ‘big picture’ may help lead to strategic success and attainment of the set objectives, usually winning in a war sense. But every side has its winners and its losers, and there is usually little difference between these for the foot soldier or Company leader, who dies in either a winning or losing cause, with little knowledge of how their death has contributed in any way to either winning or losing a battle, or campaign, or war.

Without objectives, strategy and tactics, there would never be any successful outcome to any war, and a lot of soldiers would die. With objectives, tactics and strategy, there is a greater chance of a successful outcome to any war, but a lot of soldier will still surely die. The victory cake tastes wonderful always, but always, sadly, to make such a ‘winners’ cake, many eggs do indeed need to be broken. It will long be controversial which is more important in the creation of the cake, the recipe or the eggs that make it up. Similarly, it will long be controversial whether it is relevant whether a ‘broad front’ or ‘single thrust’ strategy was the correct strategic or tactical approach to winning the war in Western Europe. But, the foot solder would surely not care whether his or her death was in the cause of tactical or strategic requirements, or happened during a ‘broad front’ or ‘single thrust’ strategy, when he or she is long dead and long forgotten, and historians are debating which General deserves credit for planning the strategy, or lack of it, that caused their death. That’s something I will ponder on as I reach for my next book on war strategy that fill the book shelf next to my writing desk, and hope that my children will never be in the position of having to be either the creators, or enactors, of military strategy, tactics and objectives.


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Dean of the Faculty of Health, Sport and Human Performance, University of Waikato, New Zealand View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

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